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Let’s Geek Out About Data Storage

Illustration for article titled Let’s Geek Out About Data Storage
Illustration: Maddie Fischer (In-House Art)

The first machines to store data used punch cards. Information was recorded by way of holes punched into pieces of paper, and fed into electromechanical machines — including the machines that processed United States Census data electronically for the first time in 1890 — that read the cards’ contents based on where holes were present or absent. It would take another 60 years before the advent of the world’s first hard drive: an enormous apparatus that weighed 1 ton, held only 5 MB of storage, and cost $50,000.

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Clearly, data storage has come a long way.

In the last two decades, its progress has accelerated at an unprecedented rate, largely thanks to innovators like Samsung. Bulky hard drives have long been replaced by smaller and smaller devices that store more and more data — and are sold at more and more affordable prices — and Samsung’s development of 3D V-NAND technology in 2013 has ushered in a new era of storing big data. Here are the major developments worth geeking out over.

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Modernization In A flash

Many innovations have changed the game of data storage, but perhaps none as much as the development of flash memory in the 1980s, the type of memory that is still used to store the data in our most ubiquitous devices today.

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In July 1984, Samsung successfully developed 16Kb EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory), a tech that retained information even when an external power source was removed. Widely regarded as the precursor to flash memory, EEPROM — which uses an electronic device to erase or write digital data — paved the way for the development of commercial flash memory, a type of EEPROM that is programmed and erased in large blocks.

Flash memory works by storing data — billions of strings of binary code — via “gates,” or strings of transistors on a chip. Signals are used to open or close the gates, writing data onto the device by translating each gate into a 0 or 1 based on its position.

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First used in portables, such as mp3 players, digital cameras, and USB sticks, flash memory underwent rapid progress in the 1990s and aughts, expanding data storage capacity of everyday devices by many magnitudes. Samsung expanded the technology to commercial hard drives in 2006, which previously relied on mechanical components and magnetic data storage. And while mechanical components and magnetic data storage were the go-to form of storage for a long time, there were dangers to using that tech, as dropping an HDD or storing in the wrong environment could nuke it forever. Newly developed solid state drives (SSDs), on the other hand, proved to be quieter, faster, and more resilient — basically better in every way imaginable — all thanks to NAND flash.

Getting In On NAND

Flash memory is characterized by two types of technology, NOR and NAND (named for the negation of the programming commands “OR” and “AND”). The difference between the two can be illustrated by imagining a computer chip as a plot of land.

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NOR cells are connected in parallel: visualize two homes next door to one another, spaced relatively far apart. NAND cells, by comparison, are arranged in a series, akin to a grid of homes on the same piece of land. NAND can store more data without an increase in cost, making it more suitable for mass storage and commercial consumption. 

NAND’s potential was realized to a higher degree when three-dimensional vertical NAND (3D V-NAND) was developed, and later commercialized by Samsung, in the 2010s. The “plot of land,” to continue the analogy, could now house a large apartment complex, stories high, storing significantly more information in the same area. Since its inception, 3D V-NAND has been built upon even further, withstanding an increasing number of layers, and thus holding an increasing amount of data.

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Into The Future

3D V-NAND shepherded in an age that engineers and technology companies sometimes refer to as the “era of tera.” In the span of little more than a decade, SSDs were produced for the public and went from holding 16 GB of data to dozens of terabytes today, all at a lighter weight.

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The advancements in flash memory have been made alongside an ever-increasing production of data in the universe. According to the market intelligence firm International Data Corporation (IDC), more than 59 zettabytes of data — that’s 59 trillion terabytes — will be created, copied, and consumed this year alone. The company has previously estimated that 175 zettabytes of data would be produced by 2025.

Luckily for consumers, tech leaders like Samsung are well-poised to keep up with the ongoing, chaotic proliferation of data. From their early days innovating in the realm of portable MP3 players, to their game-changing production of 3D V-NAND devices today, Samsung continues to lead the charge in flash memory. Click here to find out how and learn more.

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This article is a sponsored collaboration between Samsung and G/O Media Studios.

Angela Wang is a freelance writer living in Queens.

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